The pope is a transnational actor ex officio. He fills the highest position in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church which makes him: head of a state, head of an NGO-like organization, head of a huge religious organization, and spiritual leader of a transnational community.

However, the current discourses on the election of a new pope reveal that the affair has more layers than the universal doctrine of the church suggests. Discussions on ‘papapile’ cardinals included strong national allocations. Furthermore, focusing on internal challenges of the organization belittled the external relevance of the decision and the pope’s role as an advocate. With this blog, I want to shed light on those different dimensions of papacy and the Roman Catholic Church against the backdrop of the recent election of Franciscus I.

What the pope is and what he is not

Of course, the pope is the absolute head of a state. Since the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the Vatican is a sovereign state accepted in the international community. The pope is part of political struggles. However, he is no usual head of state. As a non-member permanent observer state since 1964, the Vatican representative has no right to vote at the United Nations (although all other rights of full membership were granted in 2004).

Analytically, the Roman Catholic Church is maybe best described as a unique hybrid on the world stage with state and non-governmental characteristics.

The Church today regards Vatican City as part of the infrastructure for carrying out its true mission. In the language of international relations, the Church understands itself as an NGO, and it additionally employs the benefits of sovereign status in the service of its advocacy interest. (Ferrari 2006: 40)

Whereas debates on the substance of this “true mission” can fill books and blogs, what is important here is that papal positions are never solely secular in any political arena. The head of the state is the head of the church and, explicitly or implicitly, proclaims its doctrines. Unlike other states, the Vatican relies on soft power in international relations. Exceptional for an NGO, the area of interest embraces all aspects of social life – Catholic advocacy influenced the outcome of the Third International Conference on Population and Development, 1994, took position on the war in Iraq in 2003 and sent delegations to climate summits. Compared to many other NGOs, the Roman Catholic Church is also better equipped regarding material resources, privileges, and members and networks.

The pope’s roles, however, reach beyond clear cut functions and engagements. The pope is head of one of the largest transnational communities of about 1.2 billion Catholics (plus informal members of the community). The term “catholic” originates in the Greek word katholikós which means ‘general’ or ‘concerning all’. It therefore already becomes apparent in the language that the community of Catholics understands itself to a large degree as one ‘without borders’ (cf. Brockhaus 2001). All members are morally accountable to the pope.

The pope may or may not be ‘the first citizen of a world society’, but it is certain that he has been staged as a global pop star. Pius IX (1846-78) was probably the first to use the technological innovations in communications and transport of his time to promote his image. The last two popes have elevated this aspect of papacy to a new level (cf. also Schneider 2007). The protests that accompanied Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the German parliament in 2011 are just one of several indications that the engagement of the pope is always beyond international diplomacy. It is a symbol of religious leadership.

However, the community is largely imagined in Benedict Anderson’s sense and interpretations of doctrines can vary greatly around the globe. While in the 19th Century hierarchies ensured authority to formulate rules and decisions without opposition, things have since changed.  Though highly committed Catholics must think seriously before voicing disapproval of papal positions, in the last century, bottom-up protest  has become more common (Valuer 1971: 499). Applicable strategies today are to ignore or re-interpret positions in local contexts and many members express their opinion more freely. Exit may be another option.

So the pope is a transnational institution. However, a closer look could reveal that he is also not the only voice of a globally heterogeneous community.

What I notice in current discourses

The resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of his successor Franciscus I enjoy great medial interest: Discussions are vital all over the globe. Interestingly, despite the origin of the term ‘catholic’, discourses are not at all free of national rhetoric. As in the elections before, speculations about the outcome of the conclave always include information about nationalities and global regions of the candidates. Where the next pope will come from, seems to be one of the most exciting questions for Vatican outsiders. National identities have been and are omnipresent. Looking at recent German newspaper articles from the region Saarland shows that identities are constructed interpreting potential candidates’ roots: Odilo Scherer, currently archbishop of São Paulo, is a great-grandchild of a tradesman who emigrated from Theley, a village in the federal state of Saarland, Germany. Re-telling a humorous prediction of a Brazilian colleague, German newspapers might have claimed again that “We are the pope” in the case that Scherer were elected as they had done when Ratzinger was chosen in 2005.



The new pope is from Argentina. Symbolically, this choice is strongly charged: Explicitly or implicitly, the debate on a new pope touches upon a tension of world affairs. It is a strong symbol that no pope had been chosen from the global South before and that cardinals from the global South are still under- (and Italians over-)represented related to the regional distribution of the church’s members. Although the pope is a transnational actor and the church’s doctrine is universal, the election of a candidate is embedded in national and regional discourses and reflects interpretations of identity and global power distribution.

Believing the medial discourses, however, cardinals focused on a different question for the conclave. Prior coalitions seemed to have been formed based on considerations about the seriousness of plans to reform internal areas of concern. Recent scandals about child abuses by priests have crossed borders; leaking information has distressed the core personal at the Vatican. Important may have been what is thought about the candidates’ endeavor to change the organization and the practices of the clergy are therefore expected to guide the decision. The scope of the concern is hence surely beyond national interests and should have large effects on internal developments in the future.

So busy with the discussion on national backgrounds of possible candidates on the one hand and the likelihood of resolute internal changes to prevent more scandals on the other hand, this time discourse mostly disregards the external relevance of the decision and the questions the Roman Catholic Church may pose as the state/NGO-hybrid. Will the new pope fill those roles? It is most likely. But we certainly do not know enough about it yet. Will the decision on the new pope change people’s beliefs, identity, and ultimately practices? We know even less about that.

Institutional arrangements are partly shaped by social mobilization and the agency of individuals. It is therefore an obvious statement that questions about identity and belief systems matter for research on transnational governance. Religion is a basis for both for many people worldwide. It can justify or de-legitimate activities as well as policies (cf. Fox/Sandler 2005) as is also described in the recent post on Carnival.

I take the opportunity of the current “habemus papam” to argue that religion is a theme that is worth to be found on a blog on governance across borders. A series of blog entries will discuss current and historical instances that help us understand the role of religious organizations and religion in processes of institution building and implementation.

(jiska) who thanks Josef Hien for his very helpful comments.

Brockhaus, 2001: Katholisch. Die Enzyklopädie in vierundzwanzig Bänden. . Leipzig; Mannheim: F.A. Brockhaus. Vol. 11. Zwanzigste, überarb. und akt. Auflage.

Ferrari, Lisa L., 2006: The Vatican as a Transnational Actor. In: Paul Christopher  Manuel/Lawrence Christopher  Reardon/Clyde  Wilcox (eds.), The Catholic Church and the nation-state: Comparative perspectives. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press, 33-50.

Fox, Jonathan/Shmuel Sandler, 2005: The question of religion and world politics. In: Terrorism and Political Violence 17, 293-303.

Schneider, Irmela, 2007: “Wo keine neuen Fakten sind, da steigert man die Adjektive.” Der Tod von Johannes Paul II. und die Medien. In: Irmela Schneider/Christina Bartz (eds.), Formationen der Mediennutzung I: Medienereignisse. Bielefeld: transcript, 159-181.

Valuer, Ivan, 1971: The Roman Catholic Church: A Transnational Actor. In: International Organization 25, 479-502.